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PS 3530: Legal Writing and Research: Legal Citations

Citation Style Manuals

In addition to The Bluebook, the following may be helpful as supplemental reading and reference.

What's the Purpose of Legal Citation?


Legal citation is a standard language of abbreviations and special terms that allows one writer to refer to legal authorities with sufficient precision and generality that others can follow or locate the references. The use of legal citation is a reasonable compromise between the competing interests of providing full information about the reference work and keeping the text as uncluttered as possible.  


Proper legal citation strives to do at least three things within limited space:

  1. identify the document or document part to which the writer is referring

  2. provide readers with sufficient information to find the document or document part in the sources the reader has available

  3. furnish important additional information about the referenced material and its connection to the writer's argument to help readers decide whether or not to pursue the reference

It is important to understand that legal citation differs by type of resource.  The two most common types of legal citation are:  case citation and statutory citation.  This research guide covers the basic legal resources available through the MTSU Library.


source: Introduction to Basic Legal Citation by Peter W. Martin at Cornell University Law School (open source CC copyright)

Cases are decided by judges in specific court cases and are published in reporters and by commercial publishing services.  Here is list of the most common reporters and their abbreviations.  Additional reports and abbreviations are listed in Table 1 (page 233) of the Bluebook.

Case citations generally contains five parts:  

  1. names of the lawsuit parties,
  2. volume number of the reporter containing the full-text of the case,
  3. abbreviated name of the reporter,
  4. specific details for finding the case in the identified volume [page numbers, deciding year, etc.],
  5. usually [but not always] the name of the court deciding the case.

Example of a Tennessee Supreme Court Case:

Note: Tennessee Supreme Court decisions are geographically compiled with several other states into the South Western Reporter.

Tennessean v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 485 S.W.3d 857 (2016)

[reads as volume 485 of the South Western Reporter, 3rd series beginning on page 857 with a deciding date of 2016]

Example of a federal Supreme Court Case:

Kelo v. City of New London, 125 S.Ct. 2655 (2005)

[reads as volume 125 of the Supreme Court Reporter, beginning on page 2655 with a deciding date of 2005]

Statutory law is made by the federal and state legislative branches of the government.  Statutory law is published in federal and state codes.  Here is a list of the most common statutory codes and their abbreviations.   Additional codes and abbreviations are listed in Table 1.3 (page 248) of the Bluebook.

Citation format for statutes varies widely across state and federal systems, however, there are similarities.   Federal statutory citation generally contains:

  1. title of chapter number of the code

  2. abbreviated name of the code

  3. section or part number of the title or chapter

  4. and sometimes the year of the code

Here is an example of a United States Code citation and how to read it.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 (2012)

[ official name of the act, located in title 29 of the United States Code within section 2601 of code dated 2012]

While U.S.C. is the official federal code containing the actual statutes, there are two additional unofficial annotated codes used by private commercial companies such as Westlaw, Hein, and LexisNexis:  U.S.C.A (United States Code Annotated) and U.S.C.S. (United States Code Service). 

Annotated codes are usually available before the published U.S.C. and contain additional information that may be helpful for your research such as court interpretations of statutory sections and cross-references to legal encyclopedias, scholarly journals, and federal regulations.